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By the Numbers “If the Weatherman Can ...”: The Intelligence Community’s Struggle to Express Analytic Uncertainty in the 1970s

By the Numbers

“If the Weatherman Can ...”: The Intelligence Community’s Struggle to Express Analytic Uncertainty in the 1970s

James Marchio

When Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Lt. Gen. Samuel Wilson wondered why his analysts couldn’t address the likelihood of future outcomes in percentages as weather forecasters did, he spoke volumes about initiatives launched during the 1970s to more effectively express uncertainty in the Intelligence Community’s (IC) analytic products.

Spurred in part by general dissatisfaction at the time with the overall quality of intelligence provided to the White House and other senior officials, the IC’s efforts culminated in an “experiment” by DIA in January 1976 to incorporate percentages—reflecting the probability that a given judgment was valid—in two of its major product lines. Lessons from the IC’s and DIA’s struggle nearly four decades ago should be of considerable value today as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) revises IC Directive (ICD) 203 (Analytic Standards) and seeks better ways to convey analytic uncertainty about judgments in the community’s products.

This article first examines the environment that pushed the IC to re-think its treatment of analytic uncertainty. It then explores DIA’s uncertainty experiment and its aftermath. The article concludes by discussing lessons offered by the IC’s 1970s experience.

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Posted: Jan 12, 2015 01:25 PM
Last Updated: Jan 12, 2015 01:25 PM